Teacher Preparation Opinion

Are We Ready to Have a Real Conversation About K-12 Grading?

By Dave Powell — February 08, 2015 6 min read
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In my last two posts I wrote about the encroachment of standardized accountability into the very earliest years of school. What does it all mean? And is there anything we can do about it?

One of the things that I find so fascinating about public education in the age of No Child Left Behind is that it seems fewer and fewer teachers are willing and/or able to do the thing they have always been able to do when they didn’t agree with a new policy: close the classroom door and teach how they want to. Why don’t teachers just say enough is enough? Well, for one thing, they don’t think they can. Teachers have long been encumbered by rules and regulations imposed from above, but the ones who teach the youngest kids are especially likely to be talked down to, subjected to condescending talk (and action) that constrains what they’re able to do. And teachers are acutely aware of the possible consequences of bucking the system in a changing economy. Has anyone checked the market for fired teachers lately?

Which brings us back to this grading insanity. Remember a few posts ago when I said that our approach to making education policy is basically like saying we’ll build enough of the airplane to get it in the air and worry about whether we can land it later? Clearly that’s what’s happening here, in one sense. On that level, the over-emphasis on grading is a manifestation of efforts to change too many things too quickly. We want accountability, and we want it now. We want good readers, and we want them now. We want to take changing ideas about human psychology and place them in our schools. Now. We’ll sort out the details later.

Are we ready for that? It’s hard to see how we are. In the first place, it’s hard to understand how any teacher can accurately measure all of the things that are listed on those two report cards I shared, even with years of training and advanced degrees in reading, math, and child psychology. And children, especially, are just not that easy to read. Does this kid really not understand what he just read, or is he having a bad day? To know the answer to a question like that, a teacher has to really know a kid. Who has time for that in crowded classrooms where 600 grades are due every nine weeks? Before most teachers can even begin to try to answer substantive academic questions, they have to move on to the next kid.

We can mandate a more challenging curriculum and we can insist that teachers track every little trait that we think will lead to success in school all we want to, but until and unless we actually get teachers ready to implement these changes all these mandates are bound to do is create more confusion and resentment. Slowing down would do us a lot of good. It would give teachers time to stop and respond to the things they are being asked to do, making them less defensive and possibly even making some of the changes policymakers want more likely to stick. If we took our time, we might also see that asking teachers to evaluate everything all at once is about as smart as putting a screen door on a submarine.

But there is another conclusion I’ve drawn from thinking about these report cards too. It’s about intelligence. The psychologist Carol Dweck has spent the better part of her career trying to understand not only what intelligence is but what we think it is. Recently she has focused on the idea that there essentially are two kinds of “mindsets” about intelligence: either people think it’s fixed, and doesn’t change—either you’re born smart or you aren’t—or they see intelligence as fluid, something that changes as conditions change and as we experience new things. Unsurprisingly, Dweck is in the second camp. So am I.

What grades communicate to students is: either you know this, or you don’t. What different academic tracks for different kids communicates is: some of you are smart, and some of you aren’t. The reason they communicate this is because too many people are stuck in the mindset that intelligence is fixed—parents, teachers, and students. It’s not that separation of students into different courses based on their interests is inherently bad, it’s that we can’t seem to resist linking this “differentiation” to student intelligence.

The results, according to Dweck, are not good. When challenged with a bad grade or low test score, she has found, most students will respond not by studying more but by figuring out how to cheat so they can get a better score next time. They also look for other people who did worse than them so they can feel better about themselves. Most of all, students who experience a setback run away from difficulty. And why wouldn’t they? Let’s say you’re in middle school and you read a book, take a test on it, and fail the test. Are you going to be inclined to want to read a book again any time soon? If you have to, do you think you might choose an easier one to increase your chances of success?

And what do we think will happen when we start grading teachers too? Is there any reason to think that Dweck’s research findings do not apply to teachers subjected to “value added” assessments of their competence too? Think about the implications of Dweck’s findings for the work teachers do. When we fail our tendency is to stop doing the thing that made us fail, or look for an easier way to avoid failing again. Our tendency is to show that we have sense enough to come out of the rain when it’s raining.

Another option is to go back out in the rain armed with an umbrella. We might not be able to stop the rain, but we can change how we react to it. We retreat from failure because failing has so many negative consequences. But, as Dweck says, we could change mindsets: instead of giving a student a failing grade on a test of his comprehension, we could say something like: “not yet.” Instead of firing teachers because their students’ test scores aren’t good enough, we could say: “not yet.” We could start conversations, in other words, instead of shutting them down. Such an approach would reframe the action being evaluated not as a failure but as a temporary setback. If enough people thought this way, we could conceivably stop tracking in its tracks—and bring real, growth-oriented, trust-based accountability to teaching.

It won’t happen overnight, of course, and changing our minds will take time. Just think about how pervasive the fixed intelligence/fixed competence mindset is in schools. On the other hand, think about how easy it can be to change the way you see something and then change the way you act because of it. Yeah, I know: teachers can’t just start putting “not yet” on every kid’s report card, and, even if they did, what reason do we have to think that “not yet” wouldn’t just become another phrase that means the same thing as “needs improvement” or “below basic”? Well, that all depends on our mindset.

In short, slowing down and changing our mindset are two things that could do a lot of good. This doesn’t seem likely to happen soon—at least not as long as school reform is dominated by people whose first allegiance is to the idea that competition and standardization are the best ways to achieve excellence in anything, and that making money is the only outcome of education that’s truly worth pursuing. We’ve got a long way to go. Are we there? Not yet. But one day we might be.

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